More about this later, but for now, tactile tetris prototype #1.
Haptic feedback has been in the process of coming of age for a good long time. Logitech released the force-feedback iFeel mouse (I swear I am not making this up) about a decade ago (see review, slightly more cynical review). It got a few headlines at the time, but eventually somebody pointed out that it was essentially a mouse that went ‘buzz’, so that was that. On the other side of the scale, the CS dept at the University of Bristol once kindly permitted me to be a victim experimental subject for a very interesting piece of work that made use of midrange SensABLE Phantom devices, which you can see here. Be advised in advance that if you have to ask the price of a SensABLE device, you probably can’t afford it.
One of the problems with haptics is that it’s simply pretty hard to explain. The Phantom experiment, for example, was very cool; the brief was to ‘feel’ your way around a three-dimensional workspace, and try to describe the object you can feel. Umm… it’s sort of boxy. There’s a sort of doodad here. Um, there’s a gap in the middle. What is it? Oh. Wait. There’s another doodad below the first one. What on earth is it? And in the end it would turn out to be a model of a desk, at which point you, the lab rat experimental subject, would say, “Oh, right.”
So on the one hand, people aren’t very good at identifying objects by touch. (For a more complete discussion of our confused mumblings, see Pearson & Fraser, 2008. Read it. It’s interesting…) On the other hand, as confusing as the information may be to use, the experience of fumble-fingering your way around a 3-D model of a piece of office furniture is extremely good fun.
Of course, that meant that someone was going to build this stuff into a game, and yeah, it’s been done. From the invention of haptic battle pong, which on the face of it must be one of the most amusing things you could possibly do with the most reasonably priced SensABLE device (recently on sale at 800 euros), things have moved on. But the one that caught our attention was the Novint Falcon, which first shipped in 2007 and, at $180 plus inevitable overhead in customs charges and the like, is only a fairly expensive method of playing Pong in the workplace.
So we bought one. It looks a lot bigger in real life. And after we got it installed, and got over playing the games that came with the device – particularly one in which the player is invited to launch ducks into a series of ponds using a large catapult – we settled down to see what else we could do with it and the available frameworks, such as Chai3D.
Here are Andy Hewson’s first impressions of the Falcon and the Chai3D demos:
Pearson, W. and Fraser, M., Collaborative Identification of Haptic-Only Objects, in Proc. EuroHaptics 2008, Madrid, Spain, June 2008, pp. 806-819.